Although pitchers and catchers do not officially report until Tuesday, dozens of Brewers personnel began trickling into the Phoenix area over the weekend. Minor league pitchers tweeted about their dozen-hour road trips to Arizona, Jonathan Lucroy already left for Maryvale, and third base coach Ed Sedar waited patiently in an unnamed airport for his southerly flight.
The first couple weeks of spring training are notoriously dull in terms of substantive baseball news. It’s filled with “best shape of his life” stories and profiles of fringe minor league players who are just happy to be a part of big league camp. More than anything, though, it’s a chance for fans to close their eyes, breathe deeply, and pretend to smell the freshly-cut grass. To hear the sound of a baseball smacking into a mit and stinging the catcher’s hand. It’s about being close to baseball once more.
Spring training will also bring plenty of stories about roster spots and position battles. For now, though, I wanted to outline five under-the-radar stories I will be looking for this spring.
Tyler Thornburg & The Cutter
Right-hander Tyler Thornburg remains a top five prospect in the system, despite struggling in his brief big-league debut last season. Much of that was due to a very straight fastball which didn’t fool major-league hitters. Thornburg prefers to work up in the zone with his fastball, and a straight fastball up in the zone can often result in a home run. That was perhaps best seen when he surrendered back-to-back-to-back home runs to the Toronto Blue Jays on June 19. Overall, opposing players hit .333/.400/.704 off Thornburg’s fastball last season (standard small-sample-size caveat applies).
Here is a hot-cold grid that illustrates the frequency of his fastball location:
As you can see, he doesn’t prefer to throw his fastball down in the zone, so for the right-hander to succeed as a starting pitcher at the major-league level, he must show an ability to keep hitters off that pitch. He’s traditionally succeeded by mixing in changeups and curveballs, but I’m interested to see if Thornburg tinkers with a cut fastball this spring. Much like Zack Greinke did early last year, he could adopt a cutter to add a little wiggle to his fastball and help him miss barrels of the bat more frequently than he did in his short time with the Brewers.
Opposing teams enjoyed a .311 batting average with a .258 ISO against Greinke’s four-seamed fastball in 2011, which prompted him to add a cutter for the following season. In 2012, opposing teams only hit .234 with a .134 ISO against his four-seamer. Part of that is due to a severe drop in BABIP, but the significant drop in power could be due to the addition of his cutter. After all, that was the main motivation behind adding it to his repertoire.
As such, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Tyler Thornburg work on a cut fastball this spring.
In 1536 games over a 14-year career, Alex Gonzalez has never played a single inning at another defensive position than shortstop. The Brewers will ask him to be the primary utility infielder this year, perhaps seeing time at every infield position. He played some third base in Venezuela this winter, and reports have suggested that the Brewers could ask him to work at both first and second base in camp. It will be interesting to see how the 36-year-old will handle the transition this spring. Considering his range and defensive chops, however, I don’t expect the move to be overly difficult.
With his being a right-handed bat with some pop on the bench, it makes sense that the Brewers could opt to keep Taylor Green as the second reserve infielder because Green has experience at both first and second base and is a left-handed bat who could complement Gonzalez.
Johnny Hellweg & His Chance at a Bullpen Spot
The Brewers are reportedly giving right-hander Johnny Hellweg a chance to break camp with the big league bullpen. While that certainly makes sense given his mid-to-high 90s fastball and hammer curve, it’s interesting because it could stunt his development as a starter. The 24-year-old is one of the rare high-ceiling, low-floor arms in the upper levels of their farm system. Keith Law recently ranked him as the third-best prospect in the Brewers’ system because he could become a number-two starter if his command and changeup progress in the next couple years.
At the same time, the farm system exists to augment the big league roster as much as possible, and it’s undeniable that Hellweg could become an impact arm as a reliever. He dishes out too many free passes and doesn’t whiff as many as one would expect. At the same time, his strikeout rate was 13.60 K/9 the last time he spent an entire season as a reliever. Granted, it was only A-ball, but the stuff obviously plays up out of the bullpen.
My best guess is the Brewers will work out Hellweg as a reliever in spring training and present him every opportunity to break camp with the big league club. If he doesn’t make the team, however, he will transition back to the starting rotation in Triple-A Nashville and continue his development as a starter.
The latter represents the best-case scenario for the Brewers, in my opinion. The Brewers’ farm system lacks impact talent, and Hellweg has the potential to be that impact talent if his command straightens out over the next year. Potential number-two starters don’t grow on trees — at least, not on any of the trees in the Brewers’ forest — and it would be tough to watch that potential be transitioned to the bullpen because the organization is trying to field the best possible team right now.
Of course, if the Brewers do not believe Hellweg will ever develop enough consistency to succeed as a starter, moving him to the bullpen obviously makes complete sense. It’s just that both scouts with whom I spoke over the last couple months regarding Hellweg aren’t ready to throw in the towel on him as a starter. I’m not sure I am either.
John Axford & Offspeed Pitches
It’s no secret the bullpen cost the Brewers a chance at a postseason berth last year. Closer John Axford was a large part of those struggles, posting a 4.67 ERA and 4.06 FIP over 69.1 innings. He blew nine saves and logged 15 “meltdowns,” as defined by FanGraphs.
This spring, it will be important that Axford rediscovers his curveball and can begin throwing it for strikes more consistently than he did last year. That inconsistency allowed opposing hitters to sit on his fastball and compile a .208 ISO with ten home runs of that pitch. He needs his curveball to be more consistent so guys cannot simply sit dead red.
Last year, only 32.5% of Axford’s curveball were in the strike zone. In his memorable 2011 season, 42.2% of his curveballs were in the strike zone. That led to more swings and misses, as well as more impatience by hitters. Opposing hitters only swung at his curveball 26.5% of the time last year. They challenged him to throw strikes with his curveball and forced him to come into the zone with his fastball. It proved to not be a winning combination.
This spring, look to see if Axford is finding more consistency with his curveball. The dry Arizona weather occasionally makes it tough for guys to have much success with curveballs, but it will still be something to watch. I would also like to see Axford utilize his slider more often against right-handed batters. After all, they only swung and missed 20.8% of the time last year. Even if that’s largely due to the element of surprise, he should throw it more often than he did in 2012.